You might harbor a few ultimate survival fantasies after watching Discovery Channel shows, but what are the necessary skills actually needed to survive in the wilderness? We take a look at the basic survival skills you need to make it whether on your own or with a lost group and you need to make it home in one piece.
Preparation is the most essential of survival skills, but we won’t cover stockpiling food in this article. We will cover the tricks and competencies you need to learn and you’ll be able to remember if you get lost while camping, hiking or suffer a terrible disaster in the middle of nowhere. These survival skills and tricks may just save your life, so pay attention!
Keeping a positive attitude may be one of the hardest things to do, but it’s one of the most important survival skills you need to develop. Research shows that when people maintain a positive attitude during hardships, they have more integrative, creative and flexible thinking, and they’re more open to information. Another added bonus is that positive people tend to recover more quickly from injury and physical sickness than someone with a negative attitude. Physical resilience and creativity are essential survival traits, so as hard as it may be at that moment, think positively.
However, that doesn’t mean deluding yourself into believing that things are better than they actually are. This train of thought will only lead to disappointment when things don’t go your way, and a realistic outlook will not let you get complacent. It’s important that you are always planning your next move and work as though you’re in this situation for the long haul. Basically, expect the best but plan for the worst.
Learn to S.T.O.P. (Stop – Think – Observe – Plan)
Stop – The moment that you figure out that you could be lost stop, stay put and remain calm. At this point, there’s nothing you can do about whatever you did to get yourself into this situation, and all you need to do now is get out of the situation by solving the problem. It’s not a good idea to keep walking, as it will take longer for the rescuers to find you. There’s a very high chance that you’ll start walking in the wrong direction if you don’t know where you are or where you’re going.
As soon as you realize you’re lost, sit down, take some deep breaths, drink some water and mull things over. The only time you should keep going is if your safety is in danger if you stay where you are. If this is the case, continue moving until you’ve found somewhere safe, and stop there.
Think – Think about how you got to where you are. Are there any landmarks you should be seeing? Were you heading East or North?
If you don’t have a particular reason to keep going, such as seeing a landmark you recognize, don’t take another step. It’s not a good idea to keep walking around while you think things through, it’s best to sit down and remain calm.
Observe – Take out your compass and establish directions from where you currently are. Identify landmarks that you should be able to see, or are seeing using the general area you believe you are and your map. Most often, this step will get you re-oriented, and you can be sure you know where you need to go to get back on the trail.
Appraise your current situation, estimating how long you have until darkness falls. Take note of the weather and decide if it seems it will stay the same, or get better or worse. See how much water you have left, and determine how long it could last. All this will help you plan your next steps.
Plan – Based on your observations, come up with some possible ideas and take action. Prioritize your needs or the needs of your group, and deal with them in that order.
If you’re sure that you’ve mapped out the correct way to reach your destination or a known spot and you have enough time to get there before dark, then head out and mark your trail by sticking sticks on the ground, stacking rocks or tying cloth strips to branches. If you’re not confident that you can reach your destination or that it’s a safe route, then stay put.
Mistakes are Augmented in the Wilderness
Small mistakes can kill you in the wilderness. If you break your leg in the city, you have quick and easy access to medical care, and once your leg is in a cast, you have crutches to walk around. If you break your leg in the middle of nowhere, you now have a whole host of problems. You can’t walk, which means you can’t look for food and shelter, and you face the risk of death from a “simple” broken leg.
It’s impossible to completely avoid mistakes in the wild, but you should try to avoid them as much as possible. Taking the time to S.T.O.P. will prevent a lot of blunders, as well as being always vigil and aware of your surroundings.
Know Your Priorities
Kevin Reeve, the founder of onPoint Tactical and survival teacher, suggests a list of survival priorities in case of a disaster.
- Immediate Security: Get away from any immediate danger, such as a wild animal, an overflowing river or fire.
- First Aid: Check yourself for any injuries and attend to them as quickly as possible.
- Protection: If you’re at a harm from any predators, you must be armed. You can use a machete, knife, or just a sharpened stick.
- Physical needs: Shelter, fire, water, food, hygiene (in that order).
Now that you know the priorities you must have, here’s a more detailed look at them. Once you’ve made sure you’re in no immediate danger, start with first aid.
Learn Basic First Aid Techniques, Even Without a Kit
A good life skill to have is basic first aid kit, but in the case of an emergency in the wilderness, it’s an essential skill to have. Having the knowledge of how to fix three of the most common injuries will often be enough for your survival. It may be painful to perform them on yourself, but doing so will mean the difference between life and death. If you’re stranded and don’t have access to a first aid kit, then these are the best solutions.
Cuts and Scrapes
You can usually ignore small cuts, but make sure to clean the area and keep an eye out for infection. If the wound is deep and you can’t stop the blood loss, then use a tourniquet as a last resort. Your tourniquet should be at least one-inch wide, tie it around the limb above the injury to stop the blood flow. It should be tightened until the bright red blood stops, and then cover the wound with any clean fabric.
Dislocations and Fractures
A dislocated bone needs to get back in its place. If you have a dislocated shoulder, hit it against a hard surface of roll on the ground to reset the bone. If it’s your kneecap that’s dislocated, stretch your leg out and force it back to the socket. Any fractures will need to be mended by finding material to create a splint, such as a couple of sticks. The fractured bone needs to be stabilized with the splinters and then tied together with fabric or shoelaces to hold the splint in place.
Burns could be first or second degree burns, but they need to be treated just the same. A first-degree burn will be red, while a second-degree burn will have blisters. To treat burns, remove any clothing and clean the burn with lukewarm drinking water. If no water is available, then you can use some honey. The burn should be loosely wrapped with a wet cloth. The wound should be kept as elevated as possible, and if any blisters have formed, don’t pop or open them!
Contrary to what you may have seen in the movies, the best way to approach a dangerous situation is not to punch an animal in the face. The best way to get back to safety is not to run away, approach the animal or play dead. Instead, face the animal and slowly back away from it. This is especially useful if you encounter a coyote, wolf or cougar. If you find yourself cornered by the animal, make yourself as large as you can by making a lot of noise and spreading out your arms. If this does not dissuade the animal, throw anything you can find at it, such as rocks or sticks.
Still in danger? Then prepare yourself for an attack. Block the animal’s mouth with your non-dominant arm, and hit its eyes or strike the heel of your hand into their snout. Temporarily disabling the animal means that you will be free to run and climb a tree. Once you’re back in safety, you can administer any first aid required.
Physical Needs: Shelter and Fire
To be able to survive, you need to preserve your body temperature. Therefore, you need to know how to keep warm, but also cool off if you’re stranded in a desert. No matter your surroundings, a shelter is the first thing you need.
Build a Shelter and Protect Yourself from the Elements
You can start a fire with nearly anything, including a bottle of water to your cell phone battery, but shelter should be your first priority. Gratefully, the human body doesn’t need a five-star hotel to survive, and your shelter only has to meet two requirements: insulate for warmth and protect you from the elements.
Your shelter should protect you from the wind, rain, snow, the ground and insulate you from the heat or cold. A life saver could be a garbage bag or a tarp, just stuff it with grass or leaves to form a barrier between you and the elements.
Once you have proper shelter, your next step is building a fire.
Start a Fire with Almost Anything
When starting a fire, firefighters have two recommendations: the surrounding area and the direction of the wind. Fire is a vital part of surviving, but there’s no need to risk starting a forest fire just to attract the rescuer’s attention.
Your fire should be built far away from rotten stumps, dry grass, overhanging branches, leaves and dry grass. It’s not easy to start a fire, but you can use materials you probably already have to start one:
- Bottle of water: You can apply the same idea as the eyeglasses to a bottle of water, focusing the sun’s rays through the water onto some kindling to create heat, and then fire.
- Eyeglasses: You’re more in luck if you or someone in your party is far-sighted, as these glasses are a better resemblance to a magnifying glass. To start the fire, spit on the lens and angle it towards the sun at a pile of kindling, such as twigs, dry leaves or even Doritos). The fire doesn’t start immediately, but your kindling will get enough heat and start to smoke. To initiate the flame, blow on the fire carefully.
- Cell phone battery: The above fire hacks require some sun, but unfortunately you will not always be stranded on a sunny day. If you’re outdoors, there’s a good chance you have a lithium battery. Combine this with some steel wool or your knife or any conductive material, and you can create a short between the negative and positive terminals, creating a spark.
- Sticks: Definitely the hardest method, but most likely the one you will end up using. To start a fire with sticks, roll a stick into a log, using the friction to cause a fire. Even with practice, this method takes some time, but you can practice in your backyard in order to be prepared for any eventuality.
Physical needs: Water and Food
Once you’ve started a fire, you can keep yourself warm, but to stay alive you’re going to need food and water. Finding something to drink is your first priority, so here’s how you can search for and sterilize water
How to Find Water
You can find water just by following the sound of a river in lots of parts of the country, but not always. If you can’t hear any running water, then the following pieces of knowledge will help:
- Grazing animals generally head down to drink around dusk and dawn. You can find some water by following them.
- Mosquitoes and flies usually stay within four hundred feet of water, so if you hear some buzzing, chances are you’re near water.
- Collect dew hanging on the grass by running a piece of clean cloth through the grass.
- It’s not recommended that you drink stagnant water, even if you’ve boiled it.
- If you’re in the desert, you can usually find water by digging up a dry creek bed.
When you’ve found a water source, boil your water if possible. Even if the mountain stream seems pristine, it could still have parasites or microbes. If you don’t have a way to boil water, then look out for a flowing stream. You can also filter your water. Create a filter by layering stones, bark, charcoal, and sand, and running the water through these materials.
Water is more important than food to your survival, so make sure to find a source of water before heading out for food. However, we don’t want you to starve, so here’s how to search for food without accidentally poisoning yourself.
Find Edible Plants by Learning the Big Four
The easiest way to find food is to remember indigenous plants in most areas. We suggest that you familiarize yourself with these four plants:
- Oak acorns: You can eat the entire nut, and stockpile them easily.
- Pine: You can eat the inner bark of the tree and the pine nuts, along with making pine needle tea
- Cattail: One of your best bets in the wilderness. The base stalk resembles celery, the tuber and root can be used to make flour and its pollen is super healthy.
- Grass: Its base is edible, though starchy, and it’s filled with carbohydrates and water.
Learn What Foods are Edible
You’ve possibly heard of the rule of thumb that says that you should eat what animals eat, but that method certainly isn’t foolproof. You need to test plants to check if they’re edible, and you can do so by using the Universal Edibility Test. To check if a plant is edible, place it against your lip, then your tongue and then your whole mouth. The drawback is that you need to wait eight hours before finding out if a plant is edible, and there’s still a chance it might poison you.
A simple mnemonic to remember if you want to eat berries is “White and yellow, kill a fellow. Purple and blue, good for you. Red could be good, could be dead.” This method isn’t infallible, but it can help if you’ve run out of options.
Physical Needs: Basic Hygiene
Long-term survival circumstances require you to keep up with some hygiene habits. You can ignore hygiene for the most part, but there are some issues that shouldn’t be overlooked.
One issue that you need to pay attention to is dental care. Dental plaque builds up quickly, and getting a dental infection is dangerous, painful and expensive. If you don’t have a toothbrush, toothpaste and floss handy, then make a toothbrush by using birch, or at least wipe your teeth with a clean piece of cloth.
Other than that, which hygiene issues you need to pay attention to will depend on what the conditions are where you’re stranded. Fungus and bacteria will grow where it’s dark, moist and warm, so keep your armpits, groin and other skin folds as dry as possible.
How to Find Your Way Home
As we recommended before, your first method is to S.T.O.P. and wait for help to come. If help doesn’t come quickly and it starts to get dark, then build shelter, start a fire and look for food. If help still hasn’t come by then, your best bet is to find north and start heading out.
To figure out where you are, remember the basic rules about cardinal directions: the sun will rise in the east and set in the west. To quickly establish north, you can also use these simple tricks:
- Judge the sun’s movement using a stick
- Find north by using your watch
- At night, find the Big Dipper to find the North Star
Once you’ve found north, you still need to know which direction you need to go. If you have a map with you, then go towards the nearest town or road. If you are not aware of the area, go towards a clearing or follow a source of water downstream.
How to Get Rescued
You need to know some basic hand signals in order to alert a plane or helicopter passing overhead if you want to get saved. If you wave at them, they will consider this a sign to not land, strangely enough. What you need to do if you see a plane or helicopter is make your hands and arms into a “Y” formation.
Use any signaling tool you have like a mirror, flare or flashlight the moment you spot a rescue helicopter. You can attract the attention of the aircraft by using the mirror to reflect the sun in its directions.
When you hear rescuers at a distance but you can’t signal them, then call to them in a deep voice, so they know you are a person that needs rescuing.
Hopefully, you won’t need these tips and tricks ever, but there’s always a chance of a disaster even if you’re not an adventurer, as a natural disaster can happen anytime. Get yourself safely out of several situations with the above survival techniques.